Semantic information and the syntax of propositional attitude verbs

Aaron S. White, Valentine Hacquard, Jeffrey Lidz

Propositional attitude verbs, such as think and want, have long held interest for both theoretical linguists and language acquisitionists because their syntactic, semantic, and pragmatic properties display complex interactions that have proven difficult to fully capture from either perspective. This paper explores the granularity with which these verbs’ semantic and pragmatic properties are recoverable from their syntactic distributions, using three behavioral experiments aimed at explicitly quantifying the relationship between these two sets of properties. Experiment 1 gathers a measure of 30 propositional attitude verbs’ syntactic distributions using an acceptability judgment task. Experiments 2a and 2b gather measures of semantic similarity between those same verbs using a generalized semantic discrimination (triad or “odd man out”) task and an ordinal (Likert) scale task, respectively. Two kinds of analyses are conducted on the data from these experiments. The first compares both the acceptability judgments and the semantic similarity judgments to previous classifications derived from the syntax and semantics literature. The second kind compares the acceptability judgments to the semantic similarity judgments directly. Through these comparisons, we show that there is quite fine‐grained information about propositional attitude verbs’ semantics carried in their syntactic distributions—whether one considers the sorts of discrete qualitative classifications that linguists traditionally work with or the sorts of continuous quantitative classifications that can be derived experimentally.